Yesterday Tim Kaine spoke on the Senate floor in favor of allowing Syrian refugees into the United States. He invoked Virginia history in making his argument:
My state of Virginia began when English, who were starving, were helped out by Indians down near Jamestown Island. There was an extension of a hand to strangers in a strange land that enabled them to survive unlike earlier parties that had been wiped out by starvation or battle with Indians.
The problem is that this version of history is wrong on a couple of different levels.
First, though, let me say that Kaine is not the only person to tell such a story. No less an authority than the state’s current Standards of Learning for fourth grade bullet-points the various ways in which “native peoples contributed to the survival of the Jamestown settlers.” Powhatan taught them “survival skills,” for instance, while Pocahontas served as a “liaison” with the English. Other Indians taught the colonists how to plant corn and tobacco.
And because the SOLs insist on this version of history, it shows up in textbooks such as Our Virginia from Five Ponds Press, which tells its readers: “Without the help of Powhatan, his daughter Pocahontas, and the Powhatan Indians, Jamestown might have ended up as another ‘Lost Colony.'”
I’ve written before about how this doesn’t really add up. Do we mean to suggest that the settlers at Roanoke starved to death or in some other way died due to a lack of assistance from Indians? A previous attempt at colonizing Roanoke ended in an incident where the English beheaded the local Indian chief. So it might seem reasonable that the next group of settlers were killed by rightfully upset Indians, although, as new archaeological findings suggest, they also may have moved inland and assimilated with the Indians there.
In other words, when the English at Roanoke became “lost,” it may not have been for lack of Indian help, and even if it had been, even if the Indians had let them starve … well, it was because the English had brought disease and terrible violence with them.
That violence traveled north to Jamestown. The English arrived largely unprepared to live off the land, and persistent drought made food scarce, even for the Indians. Sometimes those Indians were generous with what they had; sometimes they were not. But when John Smith required corn and it wasn’t on offer, he took what he needed. The Indians of Tsenacomoco, quite understandably, saw the English as intruders who threatened their ability to feed themselves. When they couldn’t leverage English power in their favor, as Powhatan attempted to do a number of times, they fought back against it.
Our entry on the Starving Time details some of what happened in the summer of 1609, when tensions over food boiled over into violence:
In an effort to ease conditions at Jamestown and possibly to distance himself from his critics, Smith sent two parties of men to live off the Indians. One group, under Francis West, traveled to the falls of the James River; another, under George Percy and John Martin, went south and attempted to meet with the Nansemond Indians. Both missions failed badly, with each group losing about half its men in fighting. When Smith sent reinforcements south, they found piles of English corpses, their mouths stuffed with bread “in Contempte and skorne,” according to Percy. The Powhatans understood that without food, the English could not continue in Tsenacomoco, and the Indians controlled the food.
I point this out in order to suggest that Kaine’s gauzy vision of Indians extending a hand to strangers in a strange land is largely a myth. I do not say it to demonize those Indians. After all, the English were not exactly refugees. They were not pushed out of their homeland by the ravages of war. They were not looking for a peaceful respite. Rather, the Virginia Company of London was a business. It had sent John Smith and his comrades to Virginia to exploit the land and the natives in order to make money for the company’s shareholders. That was the colonists’ job and they did it ruthlessly if not always efficiently.
And when almost all of them died during that winter of 1609–1610 it was not in spite of the Indians but because of them. Powhatan understood that if he cut Jamestown off from food, he might be able to starve the English out. Our entry on the First Anglo-Powhatan War explains:
… all but a handful of the colonists retreated to Jamestown, and the mamanatowick [i.e., Powhatan] ordered his warriors to cut off trade to the fort and access to the surrounding woods, where the colonists might hunt or forage. If it was not quite a siege in the conventional sense, it had a similar effect. There was no need to fight the Englishmen and their muskets head-on; he would let famine do the work for him.
Powhatan’s plan came close to succeeding. The point, though, is this: the state of Virginia did not begin when the English, who were starving, received help from the Indians. The state began when the English, hungry for profits, took land and food from the Indians, who, as any of us would, resisted.
While this version of the story does not help us decide whether to accept Syrian refugees, it at least does a fairer job of representing a history that, at times, can be uncomfortably ugly.
IMAGES: Tim Kaine; Theire sitting at meate (British Museum)